The Best Ways to Ease Back Pain as You Sleep

Medically reviewed by
 James Gangwisch, Ph.D.

James Gangwisch, Ph.D.

James Gangwisch, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor at the Columbia University Medical Center. His research has focused on the relationship between sleep duration, nutrition, psychiatric disorders, and cardiometabolic diseases. The…

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Last Updated On November 1st, 2023
The Best Ways to Ease Back Pain as You Sleep

Key Takeaways

  • Identifying Back Pain Causes: Back pain can arise from various factors, including herniated disks, poor posture, and strained back muscles. It is essential to seek medical attention to address any underlying issues and prevent potential escalation of pain. Understanding the root causes of back pain allows for better management and preventive measures.
  • Adapting Sleep Positions for Back Pain Relief: Making adjustments to your sleep position and mattress choice can significantly alleviate back pain. Side sleeping with a pillow between the legs, or sleeping on the back with a pillow under the knees, are suitable positions to maintain the spine’s natural alignment and reduce pressure on the muscles and disks.
  • Incorporating a Holistic Approach to Pain Management: Beyond sleep position and mattress selection, establishing a comprehensive nighttime routine can contribute to reducing back pain. Incorporating pre-sleep stretching exercises, maintaining consistent sleep schedules, and practicing good posture throughout the day are essential elements in managing chronic back pain.

Having back pain while trying to sleep can make getting to bed harder than you can imagine. Back pain is extremely common today.

In fact about half of Americans suffer Verified Source American Chiropractic Association (ACA) Professional association for chiropractic doctors. View source from some form of back pain. This astonishingly high number didn’t start overnight. It is a result of newer trends toward a sedentary lifestyle and poor posture.

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Managing back pain has become something that many people have to think about on a daily basis. Most don’t think about how to improve their back pain at night, but instead just try to bear the suffering as they lie in bed.

We’ll go into where back pain can come from, how to prepare your back for the night and what to do to relieve your pain so you can sleep with ease.

What Can Cause Back Pain

There are a few different ways that back pain can manifest. Most of them involve issues with the spine and its vertebrae. Among the most common reasons for feeling pain in your back are herniated disks, poor posture and straining back muscles.

Having a herniated disk is a serious condition. Verified Source Mayo Clinic Ranked #1 hospital by U.S. News & World Report and one of the most trusted medical institutions in the world. The staff is committed to integrated patient care, education, and research. View source These occur when the soft interior of a spinal disk protrudes into its hard exterior. This can cause moderate to severe pain. Herniated disks require medical attention.

If you’re having numbness in your back or chronic pain, visit a chiropractor and see what their diagnosis is. Some people can have herniated disks and not even realize it, but it is important to get checked so the issue doesn’t escalate.

Another leading cause of back pain is poor posture. It can easily cause pain or worsen current symptoms. By hunching over, having your legs crossed, or a combination of both your spine will start moving out of its natural alignment. Without thinking about it, having a laptop that is on a desk can make it easy to hunch and put stress on your back.

Straining back muscles can also cause back pain. This usually occurs when lifting heavy objects incorrectly or moving in an unconventional way. It is unwise to use your back to lift, as it is easy to pull a muscle which will cause moderate pain usually in the lower back.

How to Treat Back Pain While Sleeping

Physical therapy typically focuses on improving back pain during the day. There are ways to ease discomfort during the night as well. These techniques don’t require major lifestyle changes, but instead focus on small improvements that add up.

Change Your Sleeping Style

Changing how you sleep might be hard at first, but can have major benefits in the future. There are sleeping positions that can take the stress off your spine and keep you in a natural, comfortable position. There are slight modifications that you can make to most sleeping styles to help reduce pain.

The key to reducing back pain with your sleep position is keeping your spine as close to its natural shape as possible. This will alleviate pain by reducing pressure on your muscles and individual disks that aren’t designed to be bent of shape.

Side sleeping is one of the best positions for back pain. Since you can keep the natural curves of the spine without putting pressure on your back, side sleeping is ideal for any sort of pain. When sleeping on your side, add a pillow between your legs and move your knees slightly toward your midsection to put your body into its natural position.

Take care not to raise your knees too high because that will put you into a fetal position which can become painful later in the night. A more plush bed will suit side sleepers allowing their hips and shoulders to sink into the mattress keeping the spine parallel with the ground.

Sleeping on your back is another suitable way to minimize pain in your back. It isn’t ideal as side sleeping, but will surely still feel comfortable. Place a pillow under your knees to increase support of your spine and if needed, adding a rolled towel under the small of your back can add support to keep your natural spine curve.

A firmer mattress is preferred for back sleepers. This type of mattress won’t let your hips sink into it and throw your back out of alignment.

Stomach sleeping is not ideal when trying to reduce back pain. The unnatural position that stomach sleeping puts your spine in can increase pain.

If it isn’t possible to sleep any other way, add a pillow under your hips. This will slightly alter the position of your spine so it will be a more natural position. Firmer beds are also preferred for stomach sleepers.

Understand How Older Mattresses Might Affect Pain

Older mattresses, especially old spring mattresses, do not provide the proper amount of support and comfort that they used to. Mattresses can develop cavities over time that will throw your back out of shape no matter what position you try and get comfortable in. If your mattress is older than 10 years, it is probably time to upgrade.

Different mattress materials will interact with your body in unique ways. Popular mattresses — such as memory foam mattresses — are fantastic for contouring to your body and relieving pressure points.

The best mattresses for back pain will allow your body to maintain its normal spinal position by sinking in where it is needed while still providing support where you need it like in the lower back and neck areas.

Stay Well Rested with a Smart Night Time Routine

Sleeping on the right surface and in the right position are great ways to keep pain at bay but there are other things to do that will set you up for an ache-free morning.

Stretch Before Bed

Stretching out your muscles is a great way to not let pain creep up on you. Simple stretches can be done every night to help alleviate strain Verified Source Mayo Clinic Ranked #1 hospital by U.S. News & World Report and one of the most trusted medical institutions in the world. The staff is committed to integrated patient care, education, and research. View source before bed. Focus on stretching out your back. You can do this by lying on your back, putting your knees together and moving your legs in unison to each side of your body.

Ease Back Pain While You Sleep

Another stretch that can ease tension is to stand with your feet shoulder width apart and slowly lower your upper body toward your feet. Once you feel the stretch, stay there for a few moments, and rise slowly. Coming up too quickly can give you an unwanted head rush. Find stretches that work for your flexibility and comfort level to alleviate back pain.

Get the Right Amount of Sleep

Letting your body restore itself is important in managing any type of pain. Schedule at least eight hours of rest every night. A consistent schedule with a sufficient amount of sleep will wipe out sleep debt and let your body restore itself to your full potential.

According to James Gangwisch, Ph.D. Assistant Professor at Columbia University Medical Center, “There is growing evidence that getting adequate quality sleep can help prevent and treat chronic pain. Sleep impairments have been shown to predict new incidents and exacerbations of chronic pain and experimental disturbance of sleep has been found to increase clinical pain.”

If you find yourself sleeping more on the weekends or have an extremely hard time getting up in the morning, schedule your bedtime earlier to allow yourself to find a comfortable position and get to sleep.

Reset Your Posture to Improve Backaches

How we sit has a huge impact on our backs. By sitting with poor posture, we are misaligning our spines and putting stress on our muscles in places we didn’t intend to. If you sit or stand for extended periods of time that can also be bad news for back pain.

When sitting down, keep your back straight and resist the urge to bend in close to your screen or whatever you’re working on. Don’t cross your legs either. That will put strain on your spine and cause irritation. Take breaks every hour to walk around and stretch to relieve strain that you’ll have accumulated from sitting.

Managing Back Pain Lessens It Over Time

Living with pain in your back can be a nightmare. If you don’t know why you have chronic pain in your back, it might be a smart move to see a chiropractor. They can diagnose your issue and set you on the course to a pain free life.

Understanding your symptoms and treating them while you’re sleeping can make managing the pain easier than ever. Ensuring that you have right sleep surface and position will make your nights healthy, happy and pain free.

Do you have chronic back pain? How does sleeping impact your pain? Do you use a specific sleep style to manage your pain?

About the author

Mitchell Tollsen is a graduate student and a freelance writer who’s contributed to the Early Bird blog for three years. Mitchell’s always been fascinated by the science of sleep and the restorative processes our bodies undergo when at rest. The self-titled “Sleep Expert” is always looking for ways to improve his shut-eye, and throughout the years has implemented numerous lifestyle changes and tried dozens of sleep-promoting gadgets to determine the best ways to truly get better rest.

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